As the sixth anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of a Canadian citizen in Ethiopia approaches, preliminary negotiations are taking place for a possible prisoner transfer to Canada.
Bashir Makhtal, a 44-year-old who lived and worked in Toronto, was arrested on the border of Kenya and Somalia on December 30, 2006, after fleeing Mogadishu and the fall of the Islamic Courts Union.
He was questioned in Nairobi and eventually put on a top-secret flight to Ethiopia where he was eventually charged with multiple counts of terrorism for allegedly being a ringleader with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnic Somali group formed to fight for independence in the oil rich region. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to a life prison term in 2009.
"The only thing I can tell you is they (Ottawa) want to go ahead with a prisoner transfer,” said Said Maktal, a cousin who has been spearheading a campaign to win his freedom.
"But that is something the Ethiopian government has to approve still. That’s the last hope for him.”
Makhtal had returned to Africa in 2002 to run a used clothing business out of Djibouti, a tiny country between Ethiopia and Somalia on the Horn of Africa.
Makhtal, his family and supporters have always maintained his innocence. Over the years the family and a loose knit group of supporters have lobbied for his release and called his sentencing to life by the Ethiopian courts a travesty of justice. Amnesty International has also taken up his case.
Mahktal said in a handwritten note obtained by the Star in 2011 the reason behind his arrest and trial was "because of my grandfather’s role in Ethiopian politics.” Makhtal’s grandfather, Makhtal Dahir, was one of the co-founders of the ONLF.
"It’s very disappointing after so many years that this is the only option they (Ottawa) could come up with,” said his cousin Said Maktal who is angered by the lack of political clout Canada brought to bear on the case.
He points to the fact that all of those who were arrested with Makhtal and sent to Ethiopia in January 2007 were eventually freed after their governments intervened on their behalf.
"I don’t understand why our government is so protective of the Ethiopian government . . . It’s so sad after six years he’s still in prison. And this is the citizen our government said on the record that they believe is innocent.”
If a prison transfer were to be approved, Makhtal would be transferred to a prison in Canada where he would continue serving his life sentence. "The conditions here are better than there and his family and wife will be able to see him,” said Maktal.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declined to comment on the preliminary negotiations as did the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Baird has taken a personal interest in the case, saying that he and the Canadian government believe in Makhtal’s innocence. The minister took the unprecedented step of visiting Makhtal in his prison cell at the Kaiti Prison in February, 2010. And he has met with a variety of Ethiopian government officials to express Canada’s concern.
"The case remains a personal priority for the Minister,” said his press secretary Rick Roth. "The Minister continues to be actively engaged in Mr. Makhtal’s case and the department continues to provide Bashir with regular consular support.”
"Bashir Makhtal’s case continues to be a priority for this government and we will continue to advocate on his behalf,” added Barbara Harvey, a media spokesperson for Foreign Affairs.